Communications Policy

(from Patriotism, Democracy and Common Sense)


In pursuing its policies, the American government has been extremely effective in controlling the flow of information to the media about its workings. The govern­ment has been helped by a powerful conservative ideological machine linked to me­dia controlled by large corporations.

The Conservative Ideological Machine. Much of the present media environment was shaped by the conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and his colleagues, as Eric Alterman describes in chapter 35.

In 1964, after the defeat of Barry Goldwater, Scaife and his associates concluded that the conservative message was being framed by what they considered an elite me­dia, unsympathetic to their cause. They understood that, if you don't win the media, you can't win anything else. So Scaife and other conservatives invested hundreds of billions of dollars from 1964 to the present in new institutions to frame conservative ideology.

Strategically, conservatives focused on both media control and media policy. They funded foundations, nonprofit ideology centers, radio and television talk shows, training camps for student journalists, and internship programs. They sup­ported nonprofit institutes that targeted the Federal Communications Commission, Congress, and the courts — to guarantee that they had policies sympathetic to the conservative view of how media should be operated.

As one result, while there were only a few conservative nonprofit organizations and centers for conservative ideology in Washington in 1964, today there are more than 300. Some are small. Other nonprofit conservative centers are huge, with an­nual budgets in the tens of millions, financed by corporations and conservative foun­dations.

Eric Alterman shows how the the new conservative institutions created thou­sands of weD-paying jobs as part of a perpetual motion machine for conservative ide­ology. Prospective employees have been placed in jobs in conservative ideological centers, the Washington Times, Inside magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and many other institutions of the far right. They have high-salaried careers in this world, and some­times move over to Fox News or talk radio. Some can speak to millions of people. The ideological machine is enormously useful because it provides conservative ac­tivists with a kind of tribal drum to constantly make their voices heard in American politics.

In the 2000 presidential election, the machine was targeted to places that were of paramount importance to the radical right — above all, Florida. Through encour­agement by Rush Limbaugh,, and Fox News, thousands of con­servatives hopped on planes, flew to Florida, and helped to shut down the vote count in Miami-Dade. Those votes were the votes that would have made the difference, and they were disallowed because the counties did not make the deadline because the vote was shut down.

Well-disciplined, the conservative activist machine can blast e-mail and faxes in the morning and then repeat any given message all day on web sites, Rush Lim-baugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hanmty, talk radio, cable television, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the Weekly Standard.

Corporate Media. The success of the conservative machine has been facilitated by the corporatization of the media. Competition in the media has declined. Ten corporations now own most of American media.

In chapter 31, Robert McChesney and John Nichols compare corporate me­dia today to the scene in the 1974 film The Godfather, Part II, where American gang­sters are sitting on a rooftop on Havana in 1958, slicing a birthday cake with the out­line of Cuba on it. Each slice represents a casino, given to one of the gangsters to run. That is exactly how media and communication policies have been created in the United States for the last fifty years. Today the media corporations and trade as­sociations have enormous lobbying powers, not because they're concerned about the average citizen but because they're fighting each other for the biggest slice of the American and global cake—they're at war with each other. The one thing they all agree on is that it's their cake, and nobody else should get a slice. It's their private system.

Many of these corporate media, like Clear Channel, General Electric, Fox, and Rupert Murdochs News Corporation, are big campaign contributors to conserva­tives. As a result, corporate media often bias their coverage in support of conserva­tive ideology. Together, the conservative propaganda machine and much of the cor­porate media have helped the American government mislead the American people, convincing large audiences that the government could not have prevented Septem­ber 11, there was a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the invasion of Iraq would reduce terrorism, tax cuts for the rich would help the rest of us, the budget deficit and high unemploy­ment rates were not a real problem, communist China would not potentially cause problems by holding so much of our debt, there was no long-run conservative plan to shrink programs that benefit the middle class, prison building was effective, "wel­fare reform" worked, poverty wasn't increasing, segregation wasn't increasing, crime wasn't many times higher here than in most other industrialized countries, and pub­lic sector-led reform of the deteriorated public education systems of our inner cities was not possible.

Up to the point where the United States invaded Iraq, a majority of Americans polled were against the war. Yet a study by the nonprofit Fairness and Accuracy in Media found that, in the weeks leading up to the war, there were 393 interviews on the war done on the four major nightly newscasts (NEC, CBS, ABC, and the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer). Only three of those interviews were with people opposed to the war. By contrast, media outside the United States had much more negative cover­age on and opposition to the war, as Julian Borger of the Guardian recalls in chapter 20.

As Robert McChesney and John Nichols remind us, it is not natural for the conservative propaganda machine, corporate media, and the American government to walk in lock-step. This was not the vision of the nation's founders, like Franklin and Jefferson, who understood that, without a diverse, free media, you cannot have democracy.


Until recently, conventional wisdom has been that, while media are important to our democracy, the public cannot be engaged in reform because the issues are too ab­stract.

However, during the last several years, a movement to democratize the media has emerged. It began with corporate power and media ownership. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission sought federal rule changes to allow a single network to control more television stations around the country. The rule changes also sought to allow a single media company to control more of a local me­dia market. A coalition of strange bedfellows—from the National Rifle Association and William Safire to and Noam Chomsky—lobbied against the changes, and a federal appeals court ordered the FCC to reconsider the rules. This was a tremendous victory for media diversity and democracy. The media reform movement is here to stay. We are at a period of time comparable to the early twen­tieth century, when Republican President Teddy Roosevelt attacked the power, cor­ruption, and greed of huge corporations.

Led by the nonprofit organization Free Press, and its website,, the emerging movement has recognized, as did the conservatives after the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, that reform must be based on a balance between media control and media policy. Media policy advocacy needs to evolve from high-tech models like in the United States and OhMyNews in South Korea as well as from person-to-person models like Jim Hightower's Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour.

Media Control. In terms of control, the need is for new radio networks to counter false claims by the far right. We also need more television programs like NOW with Bill Moyers and new journalism that provides democratic alternatives to the right-wing ideology of people like Rush Limbaugh and Gordon Liddy, the con­servative ideology of Fox News and Clear Channel radio, and the content of main­stream journalism.

As described in this book, a premiere model for alternative media is the national, daily Pacifica network grassroots news program hosted by Amy Goodman, Democracy Now. After September 11, Democracy Now became a television radio show, broadcast­ing on over 150 stations around the country. Democracy Now is expanding the number of National Public Radio stations which carry it and broadcasting on public-access tel­evision, a much-underutilized resource. Presently, people in a community often don't even know that they have public access. The Pacifica network is proceeding from com­munity to community and reminding people that they have these channels. Media ac­tivists lobby their city councils, and council members see the channels written into lo­cal agreements. As a result, the councils become energized. This energy needs to be promoted, so that public access becomes a cornerstone for people's media.

Media Policy. In terms of media policy reform, here is a partial list of initia­tives, building on the recommendations of Robert McChesney and John Nichols in chapter 31:

• Federal antitrust policy must be reassessed. Because competition and diversity have been under assault for more than two decades, the impact of media mergers on democracy needs to be closely examined. Caps on media owner­ship, appropriate for a democracy, should continue to be advocated, building on the opposition to the FCC ownership rulings of recent years.

• Congress should roll back the number of radio stations a single corporation can own. Advocacy is needed for Congress to pass legislation prohibiting me­dia cross-ownership and vertical integration. There are tremendous economic benefits to media conglomerations, but they accrue almost entirely to the media owners. The public loses out.

• Citizen advocates must continue to reinvigorate the regulatory process. As FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps has observed, "Most people do not even know that they can challenge the renewal of a local radio or television station if they believe that the station is not living up to its obligation due to a lack of local coverage, a lack of diversity, excessive indecency and violence, or other concerns important to the community."

• Foundations need to greatly expand media training to senior staff of national and local nonprofit organizations, including training for how to be effective on television and funding for communications directors.

• Nonprofit organizations must be given access to low-power FM radio station licenses. Expansion of access was promised several years ago, but a backroom deal in Congress reneged on that promise. Tax incentives should be created to aid in the development of new, community-based, noncommercial broad­casting outlets.

• Foundations must provide much greater support to schools on the cutting edge of media reform, like the Columbia School of Journalism, to produce better trained, more informed journalists and to support more widespread dissemination of leading journals, such as the Columbia Journalism Review.

• A new wave of grassroots advocacy is needed to fight for dramatic expansion of public broadcast funding. Only about 15 percent of funding for public ra­dio and television comes from federal subsidies. What funding does come from Congress is subject to great political pressures. Public broadcasting at the federal and state levels has the potential to provide a model of quality jour­nalism and diversified cultural programming. But that won't happen if cash-starved Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio outlets are re­quired, as some propose, to rely on the same sort of offensive thirty-second spot advertising that dominates commercial broadcasting.

• Broadcasters must be forced to give candidates free air time. Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, the authors of the only meaningful campaign-finance reform legislation of the past decade, have proposed such a require­ment. The link between campaign-finance reform and media reform must be communicated to the public and acted upon. Media conglomerates now are among the most powerful lobbyists against both campaign-finance reform and media reform. The system works for them, but fails the rest of us.

• Campaigns must be organized to block international trade deals that allow media conglomerates to impose their will on the citizens of the United States and other countries. Media firms now are lobbying the World Trade Orga­nization and other multilateral organizations to accept a system of trade sanc­tions against countries that subsidize public broadcasting, limit foreign own­ership of media systems, or establish local content standards designed to protect national and regional cultures. They want similar assaults on regula­tion inserted into the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Congress should not pass trade agreements that undermine its ability to aid public broadcasting, but should protect media diversity and competition.

• Policies that affect the Internet, such as copyright and access, must carefully be scrutinized. Reforms must be enacted that prevent corporate monopoly control. It is important to recognize that already three corporations control about half of the web's traffic patterns.

• The media-reform movement must, on a broader scale, address what ails ex­isting media. Top-heavy with white, middle-class males, television news de­partments and major newspapers remain beholden to official sources. Their obsessive focus on "if it bleeds, it leads" crime coverage, entertainment "news," and celebrity trials leaves no room to cover the thousands of programs that work at the neighborhood level and the real issues that affect families, com­munities, and whole classes of people. Coverage of minority communities, women, working people, rural folks, youth, seniors, and just about everyone else who doesn't live in a handful of ZIP codes in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles is badly warped, or almost nonexistent, and reinforces conserva­tive ideology that helps shape public discourse and public policy.

• Thousands of grassroots, community-based, inner-city nonprofit organizations need to become a coordinated force, based on their being trained in commu­nications and media. Grassroots nonprofits need to be funded by foundations to bring on their own communications directors (few have them) and to gen­erate strategic communications plans. Inner-city groups should learn to com­municate to the public what their own programs are about and, through this public education, help raise funds and become more self-sufficient.

The Model. illustrates the kind of dynamic, coura­geous, financially self-sufficient organization that can both advocate for these kinds of policy reforms and successfully fight for more control of media by those propos­ing alternatives to present policy. has over two million members. They propose issue priorities and strategies via Action Forum software. The most strongly supported issues rise to the top through democratic voting processes, not unilateral dictates, and these become MoveOn s organizational, action, and advocacy priorities.

Many of MoveOn's experiments are being morphed. Other organizations, such as America Votes, America Coming Together, the Media Fund, and the Thunder Road Group, are innovating on MoveOn's themes. For example, during the 2004 presidential primaries, there was experimentation with a whole array of online or­ganizing techniques that could change the way campaigns run in the future. Some campaigns had online groups of designers and content producers who essentially were unofficial media teams. They created posters, flyers, and many other things— again in a very decentralized kind of way and in support of alternative policies like those in Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense.

Similarly, during the 2004 general election, coalitions of advocacy organiza­tions, including MoveOn, raised funds via the Internet for media ads, then created the ads, aired them in targeted states, led get-out-the-vote campaigns, undertook polling research, and organized rapid-response teams on key issues. We need more and more of such coalitions to harness energy and make an impact. We need to re­fine strategic online advocacy to mobilize people, send petitions, pressure leaders, and organize events.

Whether focused on specific campaigns for political office or on issue advocacy outside political campaigns, MoveOn has pioneered in identifying and sharing with wide audiences the misinformation that is spread by officeholders pursuing failed policies as well as the conservative ideology machine and right-wing media who de­fend those policies. For example, as Eli Pariser discusses in chapter 32, MoveOn has begun the Daily Mislead (, which e-mails its members each day, by noon, false information emanating from the executive branch of government.

Similarly, MoveOn is developing a network that allows people to self-organize around media inaccuracies. Using volunteers, MoveOn seeks to keep the extreme right honest by allowing people to report egregious statements that are read and heard in the mainstream media, verify them through a volunteer infrastructure, and then draw on a network of experts who can contact the journalists involved. At the same time, grassroots contingents can complain locally about biased and misleading commentary.

MoveOn also has created Fox Watch (, which utilizes thousands of Americans who monitor the distortions, fabrications, and propaganda of Fox News. Does that mean that Fox News is going to change? No. But what may be possible over the next few years is to make Fox increasingly seen as simply an ideological, knee-jerk network rather than a credible source of main­stream news.

Mobile Phone Technology. In the future, the potential exists for better interfac­ing's Internet-based advocacy with mobile phone technology, as ex­plained in these pages by Howard Rheingold. The kinds of alternative foreign poli­cies set forth in Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense were advocated in demonstrations against the Iraq war using the mobile phones to organize quickly and well. The BBC set up a web site in which people could, from their telephones, take pictures of the huge demonstrations in London and elsewhere. The photos were sent to the BBC, which then posted them. This was, literally, street-level reporting, the beginning of an alternative to CNN.

Mobile phone technology interfaced with the Internet has even more poten­tial in get-out-the-vote strategies and tactics. For example, in the election in Korea not long ago, the man who eventually won, now President Roh, was behind in the polls a few days before the vote. Roh's supporters turned to OhMyNews, a kind of citizen news. People submit stories through the Internet and then vote on which sto­ries are placed prominently. It is very popular with the young cyber-generation, who were demonstrating against the American presence in Korea. Using Ohmynews, the Internet, and text messaging, they organized a get-out-the-vote surge in the last cou­ple of days that made the difference. The organizers were the first people the new president thanked after he was elected.

The Korean example suggests that, to better communicate alternatives to pres­ent policy, we in America need to facilitate a multitude of citizen journalist-activists. Funded by foundations, local and national nonprofit institutions need to train citi­zens in investigative journalism, fact checking, Hogging technology, mobile phone technology linked to the Internet, the OhMyNews model, collective action, the or­ganization of peace demonstrations, the organization of election campaigns, and the implementation of get-out-the-vote drives for citizens who support alternative poli­cies. How-to handbooks for best practices need development and electronic distri­bution. More services are necessary that enable more people to form groups online. Nationwide, face-to-face workshops need to proliferate and systematically teach people how to use the electronic tools available.

Rolling Thunder. To improve communication among advocates for alternatives, and between them and other citizens, we need not just technology but person-to-person organizing for alternatives at the grassroots. One of the best examples is the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour organized by author, radio talk show host, commentator, and activist Jim Hightower, a contributor to this volume.

The Hightower Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour gives people a chance to hold "democracy fests" around the country. They last all day long. Speeches are mercifully brief and accompanied by music. Food is provided by local restaurants and community groups. The citizen groups get people to sign petitions. There is a mobilization tent where people can take a dozen different actions right there, that day. Hightower collects everybody's e-mail addresses and feeds them to or­ganizations like There are many fun things to do, including a "dunk-a-lobbyist" booth.

The idea is to get people together, let them rub elbows with each other, let them learn that they have a lot in common, and get them to continue on together. Part of the good news is that they do continue. For example, there are potluck din­ners on one side of town, then another side, and then another side. The goal is to keep the discussion building, forging action coalitions at the grassroots level.

Rolling Thunders have been held across the nation. They need to be expanded and made a permanent part of the activist landscape and integrated with similar ef­forts, like the "Wellstone Camps" begun by the late Senator Paul Wellstone to train activists.


  • William Greider, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
  • Stephen Labaton, "Court Orders Rethinking of Rules Allowing Large Media to Expand," New York Times, June 24, 2004.